William Robins, B.A. (Brown), M.Phil. (St. Andrews), Ph.D. (Princeton)
President and Vice-Chancellor
Associate Professor of English and Medieval Studies
Northrop Frye Hall, Rm 120
73 Queen's Park Crescent
Toronto ON M5S 1K7
E-mail: The Office of the President
For a complete listing of the Office of the President staff, please go to the Directory.
William Robins' Biography
William Robins, a professor of English and Medieval Studies and an internationally respected scholar, is the president of Victoria University in the University of Toronto. Robins is the 13th president in Victoria’s 183-year history.
Robins, who began his five-year term on July 1, 2015, has had extensive academic and administrative experience during his 25-year career at the University of Toronto. He has been a fellow of Victoria College since 1996 when he was appointed to U of T’s Faculty of Arts & Science.
In 2009, he served as acting principal of Victoria College and in 2013 served as acting vice-dean, faculty and academic life, for the Faculty of Arts & Science. He also served as director of U of T’s graduate English program, one of the largest graduate humanities programs in Canada.
“Victoria College has a noble history of understanding how education contributes to human flourishing, while Emmanuel College also imbues the Vic community with the United Church’s abiding concern for social justice,” said Robins. “Victoria University will continue to thrive, largely because of this distinctive vision, its generous alumni support and its place within one of the world’s great research universities.”
In 2014, Robins received the Outstanding Teaching Award of the Faculty of Arts & Science and, in 2013, was made an affiliated fellow of the American Academy in Rome. He is the author and editor of numerous scholarly publications. His primary research focus is on the production and transmission of vernacular literary texts in 14th century England and Italy. Classical traditions, religious practices, and popular modes of storytelling are all topics that he has pursued. His research has been supported by the Fulbright Program and Canada’s Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council.
Robins holds a BA from Brown University, a master’s degree from the University of St. Andrews and a PhD from Princeton University.
*President Robins was reappointed for a second term which began July 1, 2020
Duties and Responsibilities of the President of Victoria University
The President and Vice-Chancellor is the senior executive officer of Victoria University and is responsible to its governing body, the Board of Regents, for its academic and administrative operation.
The President provides inspirational, strategic, academic and financial leadership, and works co-operatively within Victoria University and with the University of Toronto to strengthen and expand programs and activities in ways that exemplify Victoria University’s mission.
The President represents Victoria University with the external community to advance its mission and vision, increase its resources and well-being, and raise its profile locally, provincially, nationally and internationally.
October 2018–2022 Vic Report Messages
A Place for Exploration
This spring we will wrap up another term marked by challenges presented by the coronavirus pandemic. Once again, I have an opportunity to express my gratitude to students, staff and faculty for their expert work in keeping morale high, and for maintaining our excellent academic programs and our deep sense of community.
We have learned how to excel at connecting with each other remotely, in our classes, in our work responsibilities, and in our social activities. Without a doubt, to reach more students and enhance the variety of our programming, we will continue to harness many elements of remote learning even after pandemic measures soften. At the same time, we have come to appreciate how much we gain from seeing each other in person. Victoria’s unique identity has long been expressed through the rich texture of campus life. When we are on campus together, we almost inevitably encounter a wider mix of students and staff and community members, and spend more serendipitous, unstructured time with each other.
The spark of face-to-face encounters enkindles many aspects of Victoria’s mission. A good example is in the area of research. As soon as possible, Victoria’s beautiful campus will once again host lectures and conferences of all sorts, from the meetings of large academic associations, to public lectures on topics of pressing current interest, to powerful cultural events. As I write, plans are afoot for our in-person Undergraduate Research Day in March, showcasing student research projects in all fields. Also scheduled for March is the biennial Book Launch, celebrating the ambitious academic projects achieved by faculty members of Victoria and Emmanuel Colleges. These face-to-face gatherings
enhance Victoria’s impact as a site of creative inquiry.
Promoting a dynamic culture of research is one of the commitments spelled out in Victoria University’s Strategic Framework. That commitment emerges from the theme given the name “Explore,” which is one of the four central themes—Belong, Encounter, Explore and Transform—of the Strategic Framework. Vic hosts research centres of international renown, and supports undergraduate research initiatives in the humanities that are without parallel in Canada. We have an integrated community encompassing undergraduate and graduate students, faculty members, research fellows and emeriti. This cultivation of an interlinked community of exploration creates an atmosphere in which academic coursework, co-curricular activities, and social connections are imbued with a common purpose: to share our curiosity and to sustain each other as we discover new forms and expressions of knowledge.
Another theme in the framework, named “Encounter,” underscores our inspiring sense of place. Victoria University’s beautiful campus profoundly shapes how students and others experience the University and its mission. The pandemic has underscored just how meaningful that sense of place is for so many members of our community. The campus and the residences have stayed open for most of the pandemic; and students and staff who shifted their activities to remote delivery will soon be participating more fully in the vibrancy of life on campus, with a revitalized sense of belonging.
In this issue of the Vic Report you will read articles that spotlight the ongoing importance of all four themes of our Strategic Framework. The cover story featuring alumna and documentary filmmaker, Lisa Hepner, beautifully illustrates how the culture of creative inquiry that we cultivate at Vic resonates with creative endeavours pursued by our alumni. Other pieces highlight students’ learning abroad, Victoria University’s remarkable art collection, and the extraordinary volunteer work of Ruth Bentley—further examples of Victoria’s orientation around our strong and inclusive community (Belong), our inspiring sense of place (Encounter), outstanding academic offerings (Explore), and signature learning experiences (Transform)ident’s page
Relationships of Belonging: People and Place
We have had some beautiful days of late summer and, now, early fall on the Victoria campus. Especially as the late afternoon light cascades onto the buildings around us, the quad and campus grounds provide a stunning setting for students to congregate, to meet each other, and feel fully a part of this unique academic and social community. The fine weather has created more and more opportunities for the staff and faculty to re-encounter each other face-to-face and to chat informally, back on campus together after over a year of most working remotely. As I walk through the campus and speak with students and colleagues, it is clear that these serendipitous encounters, our respectful presence together in such an inspiring place, are an essential part of the fabric of Victoria. It is uplifting to be back in the physical spaces where the magic happens.
This fall we are cautiously restoring life on campus. The outlook for the pandemic is getting brighter, but students, staff and faculty are still dealing with the challenge of a lifetime. They have stepped up to the challenge with respect for themselves and for others, and with empathy, perseverance, and creativity. We have all stepped up together.
Learning at a large university can be daunting. At Victoria it is intimate, often highly personalized and based on relationships. We draw on the humanity, energy and creativity of those around us. Our learning community is anchored in meaningful personal encounters among students and faculty and staff, in a pursuit of intellectual advancement and discernment. These person-to-person relationships are themselves a mode of learning, a mode that facilitates cultural awareness, emotional intelligence, self-acceptance, and judicious decision-making. The alchemy of these interactions cannot be replaced. That is why Victoria University strives to provide an atmosphere of dialogue and mutuality, both in the classroom and out of it, where relationships of respect and responsibility are sustained.
How do people experience the community that is Victoria? This is one of the central questions that animates Victoria University’s new Strategic Framework. The framework’s four pillars—Belong, Encounter, Explore and Transform—correspond to four crucial ways that people experience our remarkable working, living and learning community. Explore describes the aspirations for our academic programs, Encounter sets out a vision for our campus. Transform details transformative opportunities for our students. Fundamental to all of these aspects of engagement is Belong, with the commitment that Victoria provides an especially strong and inclusive community.
Twenty-five years ago, when I was appointed to the Faculty of Arts & Science at U of T, I found my place at Victoria College, enjoying the camaraderie of colleagues who were dedicated teachers and inspiring members of staff. For the last seven years, as president, I have come to appreciate ever more profoundly the many ways in which Victoria University provides a supportive community, committed to the fundamental ideals of a transformative higher education experience. As I prepare for the summer of 2022, when I will step down from the presidency and resume my life as a professor and fellow of Victoria College, I look forward to discovering further ways to contribute to this extraordinary community.
In this issue of the Vic Report, you will find people who, like me, discovered that Vic is an exceptional place in which to belong. There are stories of family legacy, of alumni who have distinguished themselves over a lifetime and, more recently, in the immediate period following their graduation. There are stories of extraordinary volunteers like this year’s recipient of an honorary doctorate, Blake Goldring Vic 8T1. All of those profiled found their sense of belonging at Vic and this allowed them to explore possibility, to encounter new ideas and new learning, and to transform their lives.
As I write this message, my heart is warmed to see students once again on campus, interacting with each other, with staff and faculty, even if still in a somewhat distanced way. Nevertheless, I can see that sense of belonging—especially for our first-year students—unfolding before my eyes.We, each of us, belong to this extraordinary place, Victoria University. In the perplexing pandemic period in which we still find ourselves, and now as we imagine the brighter outlook to come, I find this to be a great gift.
Resilience and Hope
For the second spring in a row, Victoria’s beautiful campus is very quiet. No families will be gathering in the quad anticipating graduation—convocation for Victoria College had to be celebrated virtually instead, and the graduation for Emmanuel College, including the installation of Chancellor Nick Saul as the University’s 15th chancellor, was also online. No summer students will fill the residences—their courses are all being delivered remotely. None of the usual camps and conferences will enliven our spaces—with continuing lockdown worries, they have been cancelled or postponed.
It has been quite a year, with challenges all round. The past academic year saw universities across Canada, including Victoria University, step up to respond quickly and deliberately to the coronavirus pandemic. Our students, faculty and staff demonstrated great creativity and resilience, especially in the shift to learning and working remotely. They, as well as the University’s friends and alumni, conducted themselves with generous compassion, discovering new ways of tapping into technology to create community, helping each other through stormy weather.
At Victoria we have been deeply affected by changes to how we encounter each other. We are known for our welcoming, student-centred community, a community that is created through getting to know each other, through listening to and respecting each other’s situations, stories, and dreams. It is a remarkable achievement to have kept this up while physically separate. One great example of our success at maintaining togetherness during a time of profound upheaval has been the second pilot year of the Vic Ready program, described in detail later in this issue.
The drop in activity on campus has struck similarly at a valued part of the Victoria experience: our strong sense of place. Our buildings and grounds promote the rhythms of an inclusive and vibrant campus life, offering both the calm needed for study, and the stimulation of engagement with the wider world. By providing the inspiring venues for encountering others, the campus makes Victoria’s relationship-rich environment possible. Over the last months we have started establishing an online presence that complements our physical campus, yet we will be glad once we can gather again in our familiar haunts.
When COVID-19 struck over a year ago, we were well advanced in a strategic planning process, and this June we will present a Strategic Framework for Victoria University for the next five years. As is described in this issue of Vic Report, the consultations with students, staff, faculty and alumni identified four fundamental, overlapping themes: a strong, inclusive community; an inspiring sense of place; outstanding academic offerings; and signature learning experiences. A shared commitment to these four themes has helped steer us through the pandemic, while at the same time the resilience and creativity of the Victoria community over the last year has helped refine our strategic priorities for the years to come.
At this time, many of us are beginning to allow ourselves to feel a renewed sense of optimism. Even as the coronavirus pandemic lingers, and no doubt will bring new complications, the vaccine roll-out promises safer days ahead. Although we don’t yet know what the start of classes in September will look like, we know that soon enough we will gather on campus again, and share our smiles and laughs in person. We have made it thus far through a time of immense and unprecedented challenge, all too marked by solitude, weariness and worry. The University is ready for what comes next.
As I reflect upon the thoughtfulness and care shown by the members of the Victoria community, I am filled with great hope for the year ahead.
Victoria’s Virtual Campus
These autumn days, around noon, the quad is transformed into a picnic space, a makeshift, open-air dining room. Vic’s resident students choose their meals at Burwash, then take them away, boxed up, passing the long refectory tables which remain empty because of pandemic restrictions. In the quad, small groups of socially-distanced students eat lunch on the steps of Old Vic or under the trees. Others eat in their rooms, while fast-forwarding or slowly reviewing lectures that have been posted online. It is a term unlike any other. The way students relate to their classes, their campus, their peers has shifted ground.
Most of our students are not on campus at all. This is especially the case since the University of Toronto shifted the remaining in-person classes to online around Thanksgiving. The buildings are quite empty. Two classrooms are located across from my office: they lie dark and quiet, their chairs stacked, their chalkboards clean.
Despite the quiet, our students, faculty and staff have never been busier. This has been a period of incredible creativity and imagination. We are exploring new possibilities for instruction, new ways to create and sustain relationships and build an inclusive, caring community. The shift to remote learning seemed to pose a particular challenge for Victoria, which is built upon the warm camaraderie of face-to-face conversations and connections. It turns out, however, that Victoria’s dedication to community has been of incredible benefit in seeing us through these tumultuous first stages of the pandemic. It has spurred us to imagine new ways to connect, to adopt digital tools not only as technological solutions but also as modes of relating to each other.
Our students have led the way. Orientation, entirely online this year, had higher levels of engagement than usual. VUSAC’s Academic Commission has organized online study groups, the Victoria College Drama Society is creating online productions, pub nights have been replaced with digital arcade nights and the list goes on. Our staff, too, have shifted with impressive dexterity to holding all advising, counselling and consulting sessions remotely. Group sessions that stress a sense of wholeness and humanity can transcend the medium of the screen, as the spiritual life activities at Emmanuel College prove. Alumni receptions and community outreach events are harnessing online platforms in new ways. And of course, there has been the truly seismic shift of moving all classes online. These modes of engagement afford us flexibility and accessibility that will stay with us long after the pandemic has receded.
In 1841, 179 years ago, Vic’s calendar advertised the acquisition of a blackboard. It is hard to imagine, but the humble technology of the blackboard revolutionized teaching methods and helped democratize education. A teacher could teach multiple students at once, and convey complex visual information. A blackboard gave students a clear focus, and created an environment where students shared their work with the class. Victoria was keeping up with the latest in instructional design.
The blackboard did not do away with preceding forms of teaching, but complemented them and transformed them, providing teachers with a wider range of instructional possibilities, allowing them to connect with more students. Similarly, once pandemic circumstances have ended, online learning will not replace in-person learning. Modes will blend and merge, and our concern will be with harnessing the best of all technologies to keep students actively engaged.
Alongside the beautiful Victoria campus, a complex web of online sites and platforms is allowing our faculty, staff and students to connect with each other. Members of the community can gather, share in conversations and be present with one another. This virtual space is not as beautiful as our physical campus, but it is robust, quickly evolving and rich with possibility.
Students are craving human contact, however. The fatigue of continual screen-time combines with the frustrations of distance and uncertainty. The emotional effects of the pandemic, including worry and loneliness, manifest themselves in physical and mental ways. With winter coming, as our residence students withdraw from their outdoor space, all of our students will need care and attention. We have shifted resources to ensure more financial support and mental health counselling. Our staff and students have been impressively resilient and creative. They have translated Vic’s sense of community into these unprecedented circumstances. It will be a while before our grounds and buildings are fully reanimated. In the meantime, the creativity of our faculty, staff and students, our inclusiveness and our care for each other, is guiding us into unsuspected possibilities of community building.
Resilience and Compassion in Unusual Times
The Victoria campus is calm these days, uncommonly so. Since mid-March, when the COVID pandemic shifted students and staff off campus and greatly reduced the number of pedestrians and cyclists passing through, the grounds have had very few people. The flowering trees, so intense in May, bring delight to only a handful of scattered walkers. Through the quiet you can pick out the sound from Queen’s Park Crescent of an occasional car. A family of skunks has holed up near the entrance to Pratt library; every now and then a rabbit, or even an inquisitive fox, gambols over the grass.
The stillness of the grounds can be deceiving. Behind the scenes, the faculty and staff of Victoria are remarkably active as we prepare for the start of the school year. In September we will welcome new and returning students, offering courses that combine remote and in-person models of learning. We are starting to make the campus COVID-ready, prioritizing health and safety measures that minimize risk, and reconfiguring our classrooms, residences, and offices in order to assure the success of physical-distancing measures. We are collaborating with colleagues across the University of Toronto as we bolster our technological equipment and expertise, so indispensable for delivering more of our programming and student services on-line. Students in the fall will find a wide range of activities taking place on campus, but also a reduced density of people and new options for participating in the Vic community both in person and remotely.
This June the campus will not see Victoria College graduands lunching in the quad with their families, then gathering together in their robes and processing across Queen’s Park to Simcoe Hall for their convocation. Their graduation ceremony will occur on-line instead. Graduation is a milestone when students inevitably look back over their University career and give shape to stories of how far they have come and what they have achieved. Those stories have an unanticipated denouement this year, the on-campus occasion for telling them has morphed into something else, and their stories will need to be told in new and different ways. But we will make sure the stories of Victoria’s class of 2020 do get told, now and as we move into the future.
This issue of the Vic Report also acknowledges the stories of some of our dedicated staff members. Our faculty and staff stepped up impressively when the COVID emergency struck. The individuals featured here exemplify the tireless concern for the Victoria community that is one of the defining characteristics of who we are as a University.
Several hundred years ago, the Florentine writer Giovanni Boccaccio explored the importance of storytelling during a time of pandemic. As he saw it, storytelling could serve as a therapy for revitalizing weary spirits, as well a way to bring people together in dialogue, whether in person, through oral delivery, or remotely, through reading a written text. Just as significantly, his collection of 100 tales told during the time of plague was intended to stimulate compassion. “To have compassion for people in distress,” he says in the work’s opening line, “is a human quality which every man and woman should possess.”
I am always impressed by the compassion and resilience that characterize the Victoria University community. We are currently drawing upon these values as much as at any time in Victoria’s 184-year history. The campus may be quiet, yet it is still as beautiful as ever. Most buildings may be dark for the summer, yet they will gradually open again. Many of our programs and operations are being conducted remotely. And yet we are still Victoria. We are an amazing community of kindness, resilience and compassion. Whatever the coming year brings, we will continue to be present for one another and to listen to each other’s stories.
At this time of year students who are considering studying abroad are preparing their applications. They will ask, which opportunities will deepen my understanding of other cultures, which courses will count towards my programs of study, and how might an experience abroad be paid for? To encourage study abroad and to bring it within the reach of more students, Victoria College offers scholarship support for every Vic student pursuing studies outside of Canada. This is one of many ways Victoria University creates favorable circumstances for cross-cultural learning.
One of my four Presidential Priorities is to Foster Intercultural Dialogue. Many occasions for dialogue occur when students leave Canada to immerse themselves in the habits and histories of other lands. Many more occur here on the Vic and University of Toronto campuses. In part, this is a consequence of the incredible diversity of our student body. A quarter of Vic students are international. An equally large percentage are of the first generation in their family to attend university. Every year Vic enrols more students from backgrounds traditionally under-represented at Canadian universities. This diversity offers unparalleled opportunities to share different perspectives and lived experiences.
Some of the most valuable habits that universities can impart to students are those of intercultural dialogue and understanding. Theirs is a world characterized by multicultural diversity, geographic mobility, and global interconnectedness, where established assumptions about cultural difference are increasingly called into question. Our students benefit greatly from forums for discussing complex ideas with those who offer valuably different cultural perspectives, or even with whom they disagree.
The programs at Victoria College make cultural exchange a topic of study in its own right. The Literature and Critical Theory program, for example, focuses on cultural translation, studying cultures from around the world and theorizing the responsibilities such study entails. Emmanuel College leads the way among Canada’s theological institutions in offering an interreligious curriculum; students of many faiths study alongside each other in programs of Christian Theology, Muslim Studies and Buddhist Studies. Our co-curricular programs similarly enable conversations about cultural difference: the trailblazing Ideas for the World program creates powerful interactions among students and community members who have never before had the opportunity to participate in university classes.
By endorsing Foster Intercultural Dialogue as one of the Presidential Priorities, Victoria University is committed to advancing intercultural understanding in the coming years by consolidating these and other signature initiatives—including financial support for students to study abroad—and by encouraging all academic and co-curricular programs to further expand their discussions of complex cross-cultural issues.
One of the most pressing areas of need is for dialogue and relationship-building among Canada’s Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples. At Victoria University we are working to increase the number of Indigenous students and staff, and we are intent upon deepening the awareness among all members of the Vic community of Indigenous cultures and histories. In March our fourth annual Campus (Re)conciliations conference will bring together staff, faculty, students and members of many Indigenous communities for a full day of listening and conversation. This year I am thrilled to have announced the appointment of our first Presidential Advisor on Indigenous Issues, Jonathan Hamilton-Diabo Emm 1T1, who now teaches at both of our colleges and is featured in this issue of Vic Report (see page 11). His appointment, and the establishment of an Indigenous Advisory Circle earlier this year, mark a new chapter in Vic’s relationships with Indigenous communities.
Liberal education is doubly empowering, enabling students to acquire important bodies of knowledge, and helping them develop habits of learning necessary to navigate the complexities of the world with sensitivity and adaptability. The small scale, conversation based, face-to-face learning environments at Victoria cultivate a willingness to be confident, open minded, curious, and gracious at the same time. Victoria University and the University of Toronto are places where thousands of ideas productively collide and connect, enabling students from multiple cultural backgrounds to become patient, respectful, inquisitive, attentive—capable of discovering new ways to speak with and listen to others, as well as new ways of understanding themselves.
Every day from my window I see the beautiful red sandstone of Old Vic. Commissioned when Victoria University decided to move from Cobourg in 1890, the Victoria College Building on the northeast corner of Queen’s Park opened for classes in 1892, and has been a hub of Vic life ever since.
When I look at the building I am reminded of its history. I am reminded, for example, that Victoria’s decision to join the emerging provincial university in Toronto was not an easy one. Dislocation from the Cobourg community and financial costs were major concerns. Differences in mission caused even more worry. Victoria belonged to a British tradition of small colleges whose purpose was to cultivate the minds and the character of individuals, often in light of a religious understanding of what makes for a good life. The new provincial university would be modeled instead upon the latest in large public universities, especially those in Germany, which were designed primarily to produce and disseminate knowledge. Would these missions complement or clash with each other?
Joining the larger university was not inevitable. Indeed, the Presbyterian college in Kingston declined the invitation, as did the Baptist college in Toronto. These went on to become Queen’s University and McMaster University. If Victoria had stayed in Cobourg, it might have developed as they did. Instead, Victoria opted in, becoming the first smaller university to add its forces to the larger University of Toronto enterprise.
The model of federation that Vic pioneered was followed by two other autonomous universities: Trinity in 1904 and St. Michael’s in 1910. Forty per cent of the Faculty of Arts & Science students on the St. George campus are registered at a federated college. Federated relationships sprang up elsewhere in the province, too: there are now 16 smaller universities federated with larger universities in Ontario. While smaller and larger institutions may have different guiding missions, the success of this federated model proves that their missions can be mutually beneficial. The creation and dissemination of knowledge, on the one hand, and the personalized development of character on the other, can be easily aligned, thanks to our common commitment to provide students with an excellent, rewarding education.
The Faculty of Arts & Science, which enrols more than 25,000 undergraduates, has the benefits as well as the drawbacks of size. The seven Arts & Science colleges allow students to belong to smaller communities of friendship and support. With the world-class academic offerings of a top research university, and the welcoming community of a liberal arts college, students can get the best of both worlds.
At Vic this is especially noticeable. Because of our autonomy, our history and our mission, we have a responsibility to be as nimble, thoughtful and innovative as possible in improving the student experience. Vic’s innovations are often later adopted elsewhere at U of T. For example, recognizing the power of small seminars for cohorts of first-year students, Vic launched the flagship Vic One program in 2003; after years of success, the program has been imitated at many other colleges and divisions. Another example involves mental health. In 2012 Victoria’s Office of the Dean of Students initiated an annual conference, “Minding Our Minds,” that brings together students, faculty, staff, and health-care professionals to talk about mental health on campus; this fall, seven years later, the Faculty of Arts & Science borrowed the Vic format as it grappled with how best to discuss these pressing concerns. In many other areas as well, important innovations continue to be launched both at Victoria College and at Emmanuel College.
This fall, Victoria University embarked on a round of strategic planning. As we conceptualize the future of Vic over the next five years, a key question arises: how can we best harness the autonomy, nimbleness, and responsibilities of our federated relationship? Victoria University will continue to be an eager contributor to the remarkable (and remarkably complex) mission of the University of Toronto, as we have been since work on the Old Vic building started in 1890. We will continue to ask how we can put our shoulder to the wheel, even as we stay true to our mission to personally support individual students as they learn about themselves and their world.
The Fire of Undergraduate
A few weeks ago, I had the great pleasure of visiting a study room in the beautiful Pratt Library, in the company of Victoria University’s chancellor, Carole Taylor, O.C., Vic 6T7, Hon. 1T2. There we met five undergraduate students working as a research team for a Vic faculty member, Ira Wells. Their project is to produce the first critical biography of Norman Jewison, C.C, Vic 4T9, Hon. 0T1, one of Canada’s preeminent film directors, a graduate of Victoria College, and from 2004–2010, chancellor of Victoria University. Jewison has donated his personal archives to Vic, and the students in that room were carefully combing through boxes containing original letters, drafts and media clippings, gathering material that will contribute to a fuller understanding of the significance and social impact of Jewison and his films.
Victoria University aims to be at the forefront of current efforts to reconceive the teaching and research aims of Canadian higher education. Since the 1960s, universities in North America have distinguished sharply between their research and teaching missions. Research was seen as the discovery and publication of new knowledge by professors and graduate students, while teaching entailed the dissemination of knowledge to undergraduates through classroom instruction. As our educational environment changes, a new model is emerging where the teaching of undergraduates and the research endeavours of universities are increasingly intertwined. This new model is especially suited to U of T, with its extensive undergraduate programs and strength as Canada’s premier research university. Victoria College is playing a leading role in this important shift by making undergraduate research a prime area for innovation and by including new research initiatives in the sciences, the social sciences and the humanities.
Through their involvement in research projects students turn their chosen academic interests into a set of sophisticated skills. Through research, students understand more deeply the parameters, methods and ethics of their areas of study; they participate in new forms of interpretation such as hospital labs, digital maker spaces and entrepreneurship hubs; they gain experience in project design, problem solving and data analysis; and they cultivate habits of communication, teamwork, independence and public engagement. Students become active creators of knowledge at the cutting edge of their disciplines.
Vic is well positioned to contribute to the reorganization of undergraduate creative inquiry. It has academically strong students, faculty fellows with rigorous research profiles, a library rich with resources, as well as the graduate research strengths of its sister college, Emmanuel. The campus is home to thriving intellectual centres such as the Centre for Reformation and Renaissance Studies, the Northrop Frye Centre and the Centre for the Study of Religion and Its Contexts.
One of my four presidential priorities is to “Engage Undergraduate Students as Active Creators of Knowledge.” In the last few years Victoria College has created a position of undergraduate research coordinator, launched an Undergraduate Research Day and appointed undergraduate fellows at the Northrop Frye Centre. Vic also coordinates with the Jackman Humanities Institute for the successful Scholars-in-Residence program, where students work on faculty led research projects in the humanities. The Jewison biography project I mentioned above is one of this year’s Scholars-in-Residence offerings.
“Education,” said W.B. Yeats, “is not the filling of a pail but the lighting of a fire.” Experience shows that to fan the fire of curiosity and discovery, nothing surpasses a research opportunity in a student’s chosen field. In the coming years, we will be continuing to help Vic’s teaching staff and research centres broaden opportunities for undergraduate research, and continue to increase the capacity of the libraries to contribute to such cutting-edge projects. To ensure that these initiatives succeed, we are working with our partners at U of T and our donor community to achieve efficient, collaborative structures, appropriate spaces, and reliable resourcing for existing and new undergraduate research programs. I hope that you will join us in celebrating the academic mission of Victoria College as increasingly it becomes a place where creative research thrives, not only for our stellar faculty members, but also for our eager undergraduates.
Conscientious Engagement Beyond Vic
Victoria University is well known for a distinctive approach to education. The personalized, broad based education championed at Victoria College—through face-to-face conversations in a supportive community—helps students to evaluate topics from multiple perspectives, to respect the viewpoints of others, and to respond persuasively with arguments of their own. Combined with a rich tradition of graduates who have gone on to contribute to our city, our country and our world, these ideals encourage Vic students to build bridges between their academic studies and their conscientious engagement with the worlds beyond the campus.
As I think about the life of the College over the last few months, I am struck by the many occasions we have had to celebrate Vic students, alumni and friends who have received public recognition for their successes and public service. Among our students, for example, special congratulations are in order for Edil Ga’al Vic 1T8, who has won a Rhodes Scholarship to pursue a Master of Science in African studies at Oxford: “She is a wonderful example,” in the words of Vic Principal Angela Esterhammer, “of the way Vic students apply their learning and research for the benefit of society.” Another shout should go out for the terrific achievements of Alina Dormann on the volleyball court, in her demanding life science program and as a volunteer: she has just received the Governor General’s Academic All-Canadian Commendation, bestowed upon the country’s top student athletes.
Victoria alumni continue to inspire us, as five recent appointments to the Order of Canada testify. Alexandra Johnston Vic 6T1, Hon. 1T4 transformed an entire academic field, the study of early English drama, even as she broke ground for generations of female academic leaders in Canada; a past principal of Victoria College, she is a pillar of the Vic community. John Kirk Howard Vic 6T5 has been recognized for his commitment to Canadian writing and publishing; just last year a group of Vic undergraduates had the thrill of publishing their research results as a book with his Dundurn Press. Christina Jennings Vic 7T4 has been recognized for her “commitment to the Canadian film industry and for her promotion of women in this field;” Vic students will know Blake Goldring’s Vic 8T1 name already because it graces the wonderful Goldring Student Centre at the heart of campus; the Order of Canada will tell them he is also a stalwart advocate for veterans and their families. Don Lawson Hon. 9T8, a member of our Board of Regents for many years, and the recipient of a Vic honorary degree, has been honoured for improving career counselling services for underserved populations in Canada. The remarkable careers of these five inductees provide inspiring examples for our students, and their continued involvement at Vic makes the life of the College more rewarding for all.
As I take this moment to shine a light on the accolades earned by members of the Vic community, I am aware that, for many of our students, such stories of success will seem almost too remote to serve as inspiration. Most of our students are still making their way, still unsure about how their talents will find purchase on the world. Especially in this age of social media profiles, the continual comparisons of oneself to others too often generate anxiety and self-doubt. Vic offers many supports for navigating this tricky stage of transition. One of the most useful supports is to welcome alumni back to campus to give fireside chats or to serve as mentors: when alumni admit that they were similarly unclear about their life’s direction, or when they recall how a teacher or friend offered a crucial vote of confidence, our students are eager to hear more. Stories of resilience, of trying again and again, are just as inspiring as stories about finally catching the prize.
When Victoria students graduate, we want them to be confident in their ability to work productively, both individually and as part of a team, to employ their talents to the benefit of their communities and to solve problems with creativity, intensity and effectiveness. As we develop special programs for students to hone these skills and apply them beyond the campus walls, I hope that you will join us in preparing students to excel in whatever endeavours come next.
A Community of Creativity
From my office window I can see a group of students rehearsing for an upcoming outdoor production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream in the Emmanuel quad. These annual outdoor performances by the Victoria College Drama Society (VCDS) are magical, enchanting audiences under the campus’ trees as summer yields to autumn and the term gets underway. Vic’s tradition of dramatic creativity is impressive. The 2017 Vic entry for the U of T Drama Festival was an ambitious and gratifying full-fledged musical; written, acted, and directed by students, A Perfect Bowl of Pho wooed the judges and won top prize. Those students have since started a production company to take Pho on the road and to improve opportunities for Asian-Canadians on the stage. Last year was a milestone season for the VDCS, their 100th year, and this year they begin their second century with another exciting slate of shows. Showcasing their exuberant creative energy on the stage, the students today continue a long and rich Vic tradition.
Creativity in the arts is in full force at Vic. In the College’s Creative Expression and Society program young novelists and poets hone their craft, while the stream of Vic One named after movie director Norman Jewison Vic 4T9, Hon. 01 inspires a new generation of artists and audiences. The campus signals the centrality of artistic vision to the University’s mission in other ways as well. The Cat’s Eye pub, after all, is named after a novel by Margaret Atwood Vic 6T1, Hon. 8T7. Sculptures and paintings grace our buildings (including the collection of Inuit carvings recently donated by David Bernhardt Vic 5T8, described in this issue on page 16). The library is renowned for its rare copies of books by writers such as William Blake and Virginia Woolf, and of personal documents by hundreds of Canadian writers. Vic students value these collections both as inspiration and as materials for very unique research projects.
Working within limitations, understanding one’s materials, connecting to one’s audience, listening attentively to collaborators: creativity is central to all aspects of Vic’s broad-based education, not just artistic expression. Creativity is about spotting opportunities and fashioning ways to seize them. Canadian hip-hop artist Tasha Schumann, the alumni speaker at this fall’s orientation ceremonies, spoke eloquently of finding at Vic a supportive community that encouraged her to experiment, to throw ideas against the wall to see what sticks. That community of curiosity and experimentation is incredibly stimulating in the classroom as well. The broad-based education offered at the University of Toronto graduates students who are capable of analyzing complex ideas, texts, and data sets, of seeing what others have missed, and of communicating their discoveries with clarity and precision. Vic’s small classes and research opportunities help students bring their intellectual curiosity into the open, as they become not passive recipients of information but active creators of new knowledge.
This aspect of Vic’s educational philosophy is what I call “Creative Inquiry” in my recent discussion of Presidential Priorities endorsed by the Victoria University Board of Regents in February 2018. Our approach to education helps students to evaluate topics from multiple perspectives, to understand the implications of arguments advanced by others, and to respond persuasively with arguments of their own. Everything we do is designed so that when students graduate they will be confident in their ability to work productively both individually and as part of a team, to contribute to the betterment of society, and to solve problems with intensity, effectiveness and creativity.
Creative inquiry cuts across classroom studies, extracurriculars, and our students’ concern for the needs of the wider world. Any student wishing to know how central these ideas are at Vic need only come to the centre of campus, sit on the bench next to the sculpture of Northrop Frye Vic 3T3, Emm 3T6, and read engraved in bronze his words from The Educated Imagination: “The fundamental job of the imagination in ordinary life… is to produce, out of the society we have to live in, a vision of the society we want to live in.”
That sculpture of Frye is also visible outside my window. The rehearsing students are now taking a break beside it, joking with the bronze eminence. It is a sunny September day, and the campus is filled with energy for another year of curiosity and conversation.
Victoria University Senior Administrative Management Team
President and Vice Chancellor
William Robins, B.A. (Brown), M.Phil. (St. Andrews), Ph.D. (Princeton)
Principal of Victoria College
Angela Esterhammer, B.A. (Toronto), Ph.D. (Princeton)
Interim Principal of Emmanuel College
John H. Young, B.A. (Mount Allison University), M.Div. (Atlantic School of Theology), Ph.D. (Southern Methodist University)
Dean of Students
Kelley Castle, MA
Yvette Ali, MSc (Toronto)
Lisa J. Sherlock, MA, MLS (Toronto)
Executive Director, Alumni Affairs and Advancement
Interim Director of Communications
Louise Yearwood, MPNL (Carleton)
Victoria College 1841–1884
Matthew Richey 1849-1850
Egerton Ryerson 1850-1854
Samuel S. Nelles 1854-1884
Victoria University 1884–Present
President and Chancellor
Samuel S. Nelles 1884-1887
Nathanael Burwash 1887-1912
Richard Pinch Bowles 1913-1930
Edward Wilson Wallace 1930-1941
Walter T. Brown 1941-1944
President and Vice Chancellor
Walter T. Brown 1944-1949
Harold Bennett 1949-1950
Arthur Bruce Barbour Moore 1950-1970
John Edwin Hodgetts 1970-1972
Goldwin S. French 1973-1987
Eva Milada Kushner 1987-1994
Roseann Runte 1994-2001
Paul W. Gooch 2001-2015
William Robins 2015-